Prometheus: Wholly Engaging and Utterly Without Redeeming Value
Warning: the following piece of writing goes on for far too long.
The remarkable thing about the first Alien film is that its makers seem very clearly (to me, anyhow) to have had nothing much on their minds. Whatever may be said about the film - that it deals with rape, capitalism, and/ or the menacing violence of the phallus, say - with the possible exceptions of H.R. Giger's self-consciously sexual design sensibility, or any borrowings that may have taken place from David Cronenberg's Shivers, one gets the impression that no one involved, from Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett to Ridley Scott, was consciously, intelligently TRYING to craft a story that was an allegory for anything. No: they were pretty clearly TRYING to tell a story about a bunch of people on a spacecraft being menaced by an alien, and not a whole lot more. However coherent an interpretation of a film might be arrived at after the fact of its making - and I fully grant that Alien is a rich, rich film to interpret - it's often ultimately like an interpretation of a dream; just because a dream has meaning and coherence doesn't mean that someone consciously planted it there. The stuff of dreams just swims up from the soup of your subconscious, often fully formed, and is greatly expanded upon and enriched by interpretation after the fact. While there are storytellers - often cinema's more serious artists, like Cronenberg - who operate in a different way, beginning with ideas and crafting stories to expand upon and explore them - the vast majority of meanings in stories likely emerge far more by accident than design, especially in genre cinema. Anyone who has ever written anything without realizing what they were writing about until they read it back knows how this stuff works; it's a testament to the richness of human creativity that it does. Surrealists invested a vast amount of time and energy trying to create works of art - or to find methods of creating the same - that directly tapped into the subconscious, but all you really need to do is to tell a story and not think too much about what it means, and let the meaning emerge naturally, as a bi-product. Alien is the perfect example of this; no matter how rich an interpretation of the film one arrives at, one would be foolish to give Ridley Scott, or Dan O'Bannon, or Ronald Shusett a whole lot of credit for it (or to hold them too much to task, if one's reading of the film happens to be negative).They weren't TRYING to say a damn thing with Alien, but produced a very meaningful, provocative, and enduring piece of cinema nonetheless. Neat how that works, eh?
The main trouble with Prometheus is that the film TRIES to engage in conscious meaning making more or less from the outset. It strains, it struggles, it strives to pack its narrative with allegorical import. It announces at every turn that it is a film about the origins of life; about the need for faith; about the questing nature of science; and about the nature of death, destruction, and self-sacrifice. It does this in part by having pretty much all of these themes come up in explicit conversation (because visually, there aren't many new ideas here beyond Giger's; there are some cool bits of imaginary technology, but that's about all). It invests great import in certain loaded symbols, too, like the crucifix worn by the main scientist (Noomi Rapace, of the original Swedish Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels). Finally, in keeping with a film about serious themes, it creates a somber mood and underscores its portent with a heavy, brooding, dramatic score. One reason it does all this is presumably because Ridley Scott has been somehow along the way been mistaken for an "important" filmmaker with things to say, and therefore is expected to make an important film (I have said elsewhere that I'm presently more interested in his brother, Tony's, films, because while they are often asinine, they are at least completely devoid of pretense). Another might be because someone somewhere feels the need to justify the existence of the story, by making it seem like it is about something - likely because they figure they can convince more people to pay to see it, that way. All of this is very different from having an IDEA that you wish to impart, however. Wanting to SEEM like you have something to say and HAVING SOMETHING TO SAY are two very different things indeed, just like TRYING to do something and DOING it are kind of antithetical. While in Alien, meaning emerges naturally in spite of the lack of an intelligent designer, in Prometheus, meaning cannot emerge naturally because several not-so-intelligent designers - including Ridley Scott and the writing team of Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof, one of whom was involved in the similarly manipulative Lost - are striving at every juncture to create the illusion of meaning, to, essentially, fake it, to dupe the audience into believing that they're seeing something of value. This striving to fake meaning does nothing but inhibit any natural human creativity or spontaneous access to the subconscious that can emerge through the act of storytelling; it creates, in fact, a kind of oppressive miasma around Prometheus, a heavy-handed seriousness in no way justified by any coherent interpretation that may be made of the film (least as far as *I* can see). As the saying goes, "if you can't dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit" - or better yet, make them THINK you're brilliant, while having absolutely not one fucking thing to say.
If anything, what Prometheus seems to be "about" in fact has less to do with the origins of life, the need for faith, or so forth, but the conditions of production and reception of the film. Besides needing to seem like it has something on its mind when it doesn't, and thus perpetuate the illusion that Ridley Scott is some sort of serious artist or auteur, which is patently not the case, the film has to fulfill at least three functions, as part of the income-generating process it is caught up in: to give the audience an immersive, engaging cinematic experience that they will recommend to others; to set up, like the recent prequel to The Thing, the circumstances that we encounter in the first Alien movie; and to justify a franchise to follow.
Prometheus succeeds spectacularly on the first and third counts; aside from exactly one jackass who kept checking his cellphone, creating a little blue pocket of light around him in the midst of the multiplex, the rather large opening weekend audience was as rapt and attentive throughout the film as any I have seen. I was in a position to know, because I sat in the very back row, and could observe them: for the most part, they did not chat, rustle their popcorn, get up to go to the washroom, laugh at inappropriate points, snore, make out, or do anything to suggest impatience, derision, or distraction. Through the 124 minute runtime, they sat in utter attentive silence, completely captured by the film, watching to see where it would go, meeting it in good faith with all their faculties, hoping their investment would be rewarded. Insofar as I heard no one but myself, when I told the people I was with that I thought the film was crap, say anything negative on emerging from the theatre - everybody seemed to have liked it - I have to acknowledge that Prometheus does succeed on some level. Even I found it interesting to look at. The production design, superb 3D effects, and the skill with which the film is crafted should all be applauded. There are also interesting creatures and a talented cast, including various lesser-known actors that more devoted cinema buffs will recognize, like Sean Harris (the superbly reptilian junkie drug dealer in Harry Brown) or Red Road's Kate Dickie, who goes somewhat to waste. There's also a high profile role for Michael Fassbender, who seems so prodigiously talented in films made by Steve McQueen that I fail to understand why I've yet to really like him in anything by anyone else. Mostly, though, suspense is created in the film by continually deferring payoffs, by putting characters in situations neither we nor they understand, then failing to explain them in any satisfying way. Weird things happen; we don't know what they mean; we are compelled to want to investigate further, with the crew of the ship (also investigators) as our representatives; and our investigations are often only rewarded with more weird stuff, more questions, more deferrals.
This is also, alas, how the film sets up its following franchise: just when you think the film might actually explain why the hell you've been watching it, to answer some of the questions its posed, it defers coming to any resolution, ending in such a way that the words "To Be Continued" could easily have popped onto the screen, if people still did that. In short, the film builds suspense for two hours, then cops out; people who don't want to feel ripped off will thus have to go see the second film - good money after bad - to see if it all amounts to anything. That's showbiz.
Other than by being a fake, contrived, if brilliantly executed piece of crap, there are various other levels on which Prometheus fails. Perhaps the strangest of these - lessons could be learned from The Thing prequel, here - is that after spending two hours setting up the circumstances where we might find the dead alien "pilot" of the craft that the crew of Alien explore, the film seems to forget utterly what it's been doing, and changes the location where said alien dies. This is a puzzlingly incompetent move, but perhaps the people behind Prometheus have such a low estimate of the intelligence of their audience that they don't think anyone will notice? I'm sure I won't be alone, here, though. There are also various questions of plausibility. Throughout the film, the scientists chosen for the film's deep space mission behave pretty much with all the intelligence and caution of camp counsellors in a slasher film, doing all sorts of things that are obviously stupid, if nonetheless helpful in propelling the story forward. The first alien attack of the film occurs, for instance, when someone decides to touch a creature that appears about which he knows absolutely nothing. Supposed scientists further take off their helmets in alien environments without checking for contagion, wander off and get lost, and do various other things to hasten their demise, which we observe without feeling much interest in what's happening to them - it feels just like "stuff that happens in movies," lacking any particular human drama. In some cases, they experience transformations which are never explained, as with one character who suddenly turns up, after having been left for dead, seemingly grown in stature and able to breathe the supposedly toxic atmosphere of the planet he's on. The film's incompetence in creating characters we believe or care about is perhaps best exemplified by the scientist played by Noomi Rapace, who is driven in part (we come to understand) by the death of her parents (or such) and her desire to believe in some sort of God; though we are given all of this information and set up to understand that the cross around her neck is significant to her, none of it seems like anything more than details that might emerge in a "how to create a character" workshop in an undergraduate screenwriting course. The film fails utterly in making her seem believably human or interesting; it might be important to her, at one point, that she find a crucifix she's had taken from her, but it surely won't be important to anyone watching the film, except insofar as it leads her, predictably, into danger.
Tellingly, the only character that the filmmakers seem to have any genuine interest in or liking for is Fassbender's android, who, because he is the character most obviously driven by sheer amoral curiosity, is perhaps the best analog in the film for its ideal viewer - someone who doesn't care much what the meaning or value of anything is, as long as it is interesting. It fits that we see more of the film through the android's eyes than the protagonist's, because like an android, Prometheus itself is a soullessly mechanical creation. It is almost offensive that so cold and indifferent a product presumes to somehow deal with the origins and meaning of human life - except this paradox is also the most interesting thing about the movie, the level where maybe meaning really does start to creep into the film, unobserved by the non-authors at the helm. If Prometheus is about anything, it's about how cinema these days tends to look at the world through eyes that have no soul behind them, about how the human capacity for meaning making and understanding is gradually being replaced by commerce and technology, at least insofar as cinema is concerned. As Romy Schneider's character says of TV in Death Watch, it's a world where everything is interesting, and nothing matters (except, of course, making money). The image from the film above is perhaps the key one in the film - and even it betrays a certain incoherence in Prometheus, since Fassbender's android is supposed to be completely devoid of emotions, but shows wonder and excitement at various points in the film.
Prometheus is interesting, entertaining, and enjoyable as an immersive film experience. It is also depressing, vacuous, and cynical - a fake story, told by fake storytellers, who really only want your money, while pretending to care about so much more. While attendees of the multiplex may not realize this, such cynical vacuity is not, in fact, a necessary precondition to the cinema transaction. There are films out there that really ARE about important issues, filmmakers for whom meaning-making and storytelling are not simply a pretext for separating you from your dollars. One such film, for instance, is David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis, which opened on the same day as Prometheus. Maybe you should consider going to see it, instead? It's better for you, believe me, even if you'll probably have more fun at Prometheus.
You ever feel like you've been cheated?
AFTERWORD: Tom Charity sends this link to a very funny working through of some of Prometheus' incoherences.